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Understanding Jap Ji (Karminder Singh Dhillon)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Understanding Japji
By Karminder Singh Dhillon PhD (Boston)

This article is the first of a series that attempt to explain the essence of Japji. This introductory article provides an overview of the Banee which is a composition of Guru Nanak. The Japji is the first Banee of the Sikh’s daily nitnem. When Guru Arjun, the Fifth Master compiled the Guru Granth Sahib, he chose to include the Japji as the first Banee, immediately following the Mool Mantar. (For a grammatical and philosophical explanation of the Mool Mantar, please refer to previous editions of The Sikh).

The name of the Banee is Jap – pronounced with a short “a”, almost like “Jup.” If the vowel “a” is pronounced in full, the pronunciation becomes the name of another Banee – which is the composition of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, namely Jaap. Both names have different grammatical origins. Guru Nanak’s Jap, written with an aungkar below the letter “p” is a noun. It can be turned into a verb either by adding a sihari to the letter “p”, or by adding a kenna to the letter “J”, thus turning it into the word Jaap. Both the titles mean different things. Jaap is a sadhna – an activity of repetitious remembrance that is undertaken or performed consciously with effort. When Jaap is done over and over again with full concentration of the mind, the mantar settles into the sub-conscious. After the sadhna, the Sikh then begins to hear the mantar being recited – almost by itself –from within the sub-conscious - just like an echo reverberating on its own without the need for the original sound. Or just like how a particular song or music reverberates in the inner ears of an ardent listener even long after the song or music has been turned off. How well the mantar reverberates and how long it reverberates is directly dependent on the level of concentration applied by the Sikh during the Jaap process. If done with complete dhyaan, the reverberation can continue the entire day, even into the sleep state.

Uuthat Baithat Sovat Jaagat, Eh Man Tujhe Chitarey. GGS page 820

My Mind reverberates in your rememberance at all times, while awake and asleep – Guru Arjun Dev Ji.

In the world of Gurmat Simran, this reverberating state is called Jap. So in essence, one can say that Jaap is done, while Jap happens. Sikh Simran thus begins with the conscious Jaap, and ends with the sub-conscious Jap. One could say that the Simran journey begins with Jaap, and the destination is Jap. That is why both Banees are part of the daily nitnem of the Sikh.

Out of respect, the Sikh world of Banee-lovers added the word ‘Ji” to Jap and the word “Sahib” to Jaap. So we term Guru Nanak’s composition as Japji and the Tenth Master’s as Jaap Sahib. It is not uncommon, however to even hear Jap being reffered to as Japji Sahib. These titles reflect the deep love and reverence for these (and other) Banees.

When attempting to understand Japji – which is the main motive of this and subsequent articles – it is helpful to understand some basics and discard erroneous and faulty beliefs. Most of them have to do with first impressions. The objective of doing so is to provide for a fuller and complete appreciation of what Japji is all about. Wrong first impressions usually hinder the proper and fuller understanding of the substance.

The first false impression has to do with the two “firsts” as mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article. Because it is the first Banee of the Nitnem, and the first Banee of the Guru Granth Sahib, we assume that Jap is a “beginer” Banee. Anything that is considered beginer usually has some lesser conotations. After all, beginer things are meant for beginers. So the first Banee we usually learn as children or teach our children is Japji. The composition of Japji is short, smooth and captivating so much so that reading it, memorizing it and even singing it is easy even for children of tender years. Children of 5 years age are known to render Japji by heart. Nothing negative about that, so long as the other beginer conotations do not come into play. Whatever is beginer is usually the easy stuff, or basic. This point can be appreciated when considering a book with a title that has the word beginer in it such as “English for Beginers.” As will be explained in due course, Japji is anything but basic. My inclination is that there is no Banee in the Guru Granth Sahib that is more difficult than Japji.

The second false impression is really a derivative of the first. Since Japji is considered “beginer” Banee, when we start to learn the meanings and messages of Gurbani we also start with Japji. When Gurdwaras arrange for Katha of Gurbani, we ask our Kathakaars to start with Japji. The result is Japji has become the most explained Banee, yet remains the least understood. Why? Because if you taught / explained Einstein’s physics repeatedly to an audience who has never been taught Newtonian (or basic) physics, you will end up with lots of explanations but little understanding. Its like teaching Shakespeare to those who have not been exposed to literature. We think that because the composition is short (some lines are just four words – Asankh Jap, Asankh Bhao for instance), and because children can read and memorize and narrate, then the meaning must also be at the level of the beginner. What can be so complicated about a four word line? Ironically, what makes Japji so easy to read, recite and memorize, also makes it extraordinarily deep, rich, contextual and philosophical. In other words, what makes it the easiest Banee to recite, also makes the most difficult to grasp.

The third false impression is tied intrinsically to the above two impressions. Sikhs have often asked the question as to the “when” of a particular Banee and Shabad. When was Japji written by Guru Nanak? When and under what circumstances was a particular shabad created by a particular Guru? To some this “knowledge” is more important than the message itself. This misplaced curiosity has created a huge market for some half past six “parcharaks” to manufacture story after story – some more ridiculous than fiction – that “document’ the “history” of particular Banees and Shabads. Voluminous texts exist that capture such unverifiable “history”. By way of example, Bhagat Kabir has a slok on page 1369. This slok has poetic numerals in it - One, Two, Four and Six - to explain how one vice (augan) is connected to the other. The salok reads: Ek Maranty Do Muey, Do Murantey Chaar. Chaar Marantey Chey Muey, Chaar Purakh Doe Naar. The “history” of this salok is supposed to be one of Kabeer witnessing a hunter killing a deer. The hunter kills one, is simultaneously bitten by a snake, which itself is killed by the dying hunter’s weapon falling on the reptile. The dying doe happened to be pregnant, carrying three offspring – all of whom die, making the number killed to six. Kabeer is supposed to have seen this one-in-a-million chanced event and composed his salok. The tale is as fictitious as the dragon in the skies swallowing the sun every night. It is half-baked because the dead snake’s state of “pregnancy” was neither verified nor discounted!! More than that it distracts from the real meaning of the Salok, cheapens it, and renders it to the level of mythology. It also creates an element of irrelevance. The thinking Sikh of today can say – well that salok was meant for that particular hunter, that particular scene – therefore it does not concern me. In such “history” of Gurbani, some shabads were rendered under particular trees, to certain people or groups of people, in village x,y,z and so on. Such stories take up the bulk of Gurbani Katha in some cases, allowing only cursory mention regarding its actual message in the final few minutes of the Katha. My inclination is that this “history” being unverifiable is largely irrelevant. It is of no consequence whether a shabad was recited in place A or B, on in year X or Y or even by Nanak one or five. What matters is the message, and that is both universal and timeless. It is the spirituality – the ability of the Banee to connect to the Guru and Creator – that is of primary importance. That is not to say that the true history of Gurbani is not secondarily important or has no place. It will be, if presented factually after verifiable research. But even then, it will never be of primary importance.

The third false impression thus creates a third but false “first”. In an attempt to answer the question regarding when Japji was composed, the fable writers/presenters have it that it was Guru Nanak’s first composition. He composed it after he re-appeared from his three-day dive and disappearance into the river Vayein. Taken on the surface, this “history” adds credibility to Japji – another first. But this narrative falls apart when the message/meaning of Japji is considered. Guru Nanak performed four Udasis (foot voyages) meeting with the Yogis in the northern mountains, communicating with the Budhists in Sri Lanka, going to Hindu teeraths east and west of India, and meeting with Muslim sages in Baghdad, Mecca and Medina. Japji captures these experiences and provides expositions about God and the journey to God by drawing from these experiences and making comparisons. Guru Nanak was fourteen when he dived into the Vayein River and had not undertaken any of these udasis. My inclination derived from an attempt to study Japji and Gurbani is that Japji contains the full essence of Guru Nanak’s life. The only way one can fully understand Japji is to first understand the rest of Guru Nanak’s Banee. Japji is thus more likely to have been written last as the final composition of Guru Nanak.

My impression is that Japji is the essence of the entire Guru Granth Sahib. Its true meaning lies across the breath and depth of 1430 pages. In fact pages 8 (where Jap ends) all the way to page 1430 is an in-depth explanation of Japji. It is as if, Guru Nanak wrote his entire Banee (2026 shabads in the GGS), then summarized and condensed them all into Japji, and came back in his remaining Jot (life) forms as the other Guru Sahibs, to explain Japji in its complete form. Japji is the diamond jewel that formed out of a great deal of Godly concentration and spiritual contemplation within the mind of Guru Nanak. Given the spirituality of Guru Nanak, Jap had to happen within Him. It is thus His gift to the world of God conscious humanity – to adorn, marvel and be amazed – and get connected in the process. The connection happens. Just like Jap happens. But the beginning of this happening is the Sadhna of Jaap (the rest of GGS). For Jap to happen there must be Jaap. The order of these two processes and their functions cannot and should not be confused.

It must be stated here that the order of the processes, functions, and messages need not be the same as the order of the recitation of Banees. Recitation does not have to follow this order. Japji is the first Nitem Banee for daily recitation, as decided by the wisdom of the Panth. This follows from the ultimate wisdom of Guru Arjun who reversed the order in the GGS. Jap – as the final destination, the objective of spirituality, and the goal of dharam – is stated first in the GGS. This is to enable the Gurbani reading Sikh to have this objective within the background of his mental and spiritual framework at ALL times while reading the rest of the GGS. If one knows where one is going (destination) then the journey can become more focused. Having memorized Japji at a young age, the Banee remains etched in the psche forever –even if not understood fully. As the Sikh reads Gurbani daily, something or other in the rest of Gurbani stikes the Sikh psyche as one more explanatory message for Japji. Every day, the extraordinarily deep, rich, contextual and philosophical verses of Japji unfold and unravel as a result of reading and understanding the rest of Gurbani. A Sikh who has understood the relatively simpler but longer composition of some sections of Sukhmani, for instance, will awaken suddenly to the marvel of having grasped the meaning of the first pauree of Japji.

This brings us to this article. Should we not then be attempting to understand other Banees, or even the GGS first. Why begin with attempting to explain Japji if, as argued above, such understanding is in the final order to the process? In some ways, it does appear that this article is the result of having fallen prey to the false impressions mentioned above. It is, after all, being written as a result of requests to do so – which go like this: having written first on the Gurmantar, and then the Mool Mantar, it makes sense (in terms of the false impressions!) to move on to Japji.

But the approach of this and coming articles is going to be different. This article began with exposing the false impressions relating to Japji. This would not have been possible had I started explaining Anand Sahib or Sukhmani for instance. Within this context, it had to be Japji. Further, in the forthcoming articles, Japji will be explained, not so much by interpreting the verses of Japji, but by relying heavily on other Banees of the GGS – to provide the core messages of the Japji paurees. To provide an analogy, it would be very much like trying to explain the meaning of a short and complicated title – not by relying on the words, concepts and structure of the title itself, but expounding on the essay that follows the title. Japji is the title of the GGS. If nothing else, we would have created an awareness regarding the relationship between Japji and the rest of Gurbani. End